Foreign Policy Specialists Assess Obama's Trip to Asia

The optics of the president's trip fulfilled his stated intention of announcing that the United States was "back" in Asia, but the lack of tangible policy results suggest it was a success of style over substance.

Meeting with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a statement that the United States will "engage" with the free-trade Trans Pacific Partnership does not substitute for a full trade policy. Relations with Japan remain strained, and distrust will linger even if Tokyo and Washington do solve the knotty issue of relocating U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa. Relations between Washington and Tokyo also continue to cool as both increasingly see China as their key partner in the future, despite concerns over how aligned their interests are with Beijing's.

Little of lasting import was reached with China on economic or security issues, and the long-term effect of Obama's lack of access to Chinese society, including human rights dissidents, may have convinced Beijing that it will be able to manage relations with the Obama administration in its favor.

Asians remain interested in the United States playing a leadership role in the region. Showing up is important, but it is only part of encouraging allies and convincing other nations of Washington's indispensability for maintaining stability and security. The dynamism of Asia requires an equally dynamic U.S. policy based on strength and liberal values.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.

* * *

The problem with President Obama's recent swing through Asia cannot be boiled down to the kowtow, the collapse of Copenhagen, or the rebukes in Beijing and Tokyo. Lack of success does not automatically add up to failure.

The more damaging outcome of the trip for Obama is the entrenchment of the perception at home and abroad of the president as a pied piper of American retreat in the world. As Jimmy Carter, Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle might admit, shaking off such a sobriquet--deserved or not--is nigh on impossible. And while it's true that our Asian allies are still reeling from Obama's submission to China and his embrace of protectionism, the larger problem is the growing conviction that the president is eager to herald an era of American detachment and decline.

Obama has made three major foreign policy forays--in Cairo, at Turtle Bay and to the Pacific. In each, he has underscored that America should not, cannot and will not lead the world; that the export of American values is the least of his priorities; and that engagement with America's adversaries takes precedence over the maintenance of alliances. But retreat generates its own consequences, internationally and domestically. Few will be tempted to cast their lot with a weak leader; many will be tempted to challenge him, and some will succeed. That's bad news for the president and for the nation. And not just in Asia.

Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

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About the Author



  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


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  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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